Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.

 

There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.

 

 

 

True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.

Bad teeth, bad dogs, bad weeks. And Puerto Rico.

The world offered up to me a week of minor insults–an emergency trip to the vet, a date that didn’t go as planned, a several-days migraine, a nasty email, a flat tire, ridiculous lines at the fabric store, a work meeting on Saturday morning, and a broken disposal on Saturday night that spewed water, cilantro, and various other semi-rotten vegetables all over the inside of the under-the-sink cabinet.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico.

By which I mean (yes, of course) multitudes of people without food, water, homes, power–but also, everything wrong in our country right now that’s wrapped up in the reasons for Puerto Rico and that’s come out in all kinds of other ways over the past week. You know:  racism, corrupt/inept leadership, seemingly willful ignorance, our ability to be distracted and divided by lesser things, and–maybe most of all–our collective weariness and inability to be truly surprised/shocked by anything that’s going down any more. (Or is that just me? )

I found myself so longing to return to a time when I could feel free to share on Facebook the petty slings and arrows flying my way and gather sympathy in response. I did indulge in sharing a pic of the flat tire, but later that night when I thought about sharing the garbage disposal mess, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do. Because:  Puerto Rico.

I mean, how can I complain about the things bringing me down when I have food, water, shelter, and power? When I am not the target of so much that is wrong right now? When my problems, literally, would not exist if I didn’t enjoy the privileges I do?

I heard from three different friends this week that all their friends seemed to be having a particularly bad week. But it’s not a full moon and Mercury’s not in retrograde until December 3. Remember when that’s the kind of reason people looked for when it seemed like everyone was having a kinda hard time all at the same time?

What you get when you Google “is mercury in retrograde”

I know part of the reason I started crying when the vet asked, “So, how are we doing this morning?” was that I was afraid she was going to tell me that we’d have to put Daisy down and it would mean I am a shitty dog owner for letting things get so bad, and I could feel the migraine coming back for the third day, and I didn’t know how I was going to get done for work the things I’d promised to get done (I didn’t), but I think it was all of those things and Puerto Rico.

Daisy is one of the two canines living in my home that one of my children refers to as “your divorce guilt dogs.” The label is not entirely unfair. I hope I didn’t say to the child something like, “We’re going to totally disrupt your life and make you live in two different places (thereby no longer having one real home), but hey! Now you can have the dog you’ve long wanted!” but I can see how this child might have heard it that way.

I’m glad she didn’t see that I also wanted those dogs because I knew I was going to need a reason to come home on dark winter nights when there would be no homework to supervise and no squabbles to referee and no one to care if “dinner” was an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese eaten straight from a saucepan.

Daisy and her compatriot Rocky aren’t particularly good dogs. Because they pee and shit at will in our house despite my many attempts to persuade them to do otherwise, we’ve had to remove all the carpet from our home. (The other child and I once created a parody of the Commodores’ “Brick House” about Daisy, which opened with, “Oh, she’s a bad dog / She’s mighty naughty, just poopin’ all over the house.” ) Because they are Dachshunds, they’ve cost me thousands of dollars in dental surgery. Because I somehow didn’t believe what I read in the nano-seconds of research I did before bringing them home that told me such dogs are notoriously difficult to housebreak and and are prone to bad teeth, I have been surprised by these things.  In addition, Daisy lets us know pretty regularly that she doesn’t really give any fucks about a lot of things we care about. Like not whining all through dinner, or not eating Rocky’s poop, or coming when we call her and she is looking right at us.

I love her anyway.

She doesn’t do a lot of the things I’d like her to do, but she’s ours. The song-writing child, not long after I’d moved to a house filled with mis-matched things cobbled together from garage sales, thrift stores, and craigslist, once looked around and said with disgust, “Everything in this house is used. Even our dogs are used!”

It was true. I found them on craigslist, and Daisy wasn’t mine from the beginning, but she’s mine now. I love her, and despite the fact that she disappoints me on a regular basis and has never been quite the dog I envisioned for my children or myself, she’s the dog we have and dammit, I don’t want her to die. Not yet.

When I let one of the children know that I for-sure wouldn’t be coming for a maybe-visit in November because I’ll be paying for doggie dental surgery instead, even though the lower portion of Daisy’s jaw has so deteriorated that it has detached from the upper and cannot be repaired, she asked me, kindly, when I’d know it was time to let go.

“I mean, what’s the amount that is too much, Mom? She is just a dog, you know?”

I don’t really know, but not yet. I mean, yes, she’s just a dog–but she is also love and hope and dreams and history. Not unlike my country, which I love in ways not unlike the ways I love my dog and my kids:  Imperfectly, irrationally, deeply, unconditionally.

Even when it’s been a bad week. Even though Puerto Rico.

Because they’re mine.

 

 

 

Lost & Found

“…if you don’t get the thoughts down, they might just get lost forever.”  –Kate Carroll de Gutes

I read these words in the dark of an early, migraine-foggy Saturday morning, and they take me back instantly to my children’s infancy, when I wrote so that I wouldn’t lose all the things I was thinking–and seeing and feeling and understanding–about the profound experience of becoming a mother.

Then I think about how I haven’t written about my son’s journey to becoming a Marine, which, for me, isn’t so much about his experience of becoming a Marine as it is about my profound experience of letting him go. (Because we are all the protagonist in our own lives, right?) And I want–suddenly, urgently–to capture what I can before it is gone:

The way I found myself weirdly giddy to see a letter from him in the mailbox on Thursday afternoons, excited and anxious for mail in ways I haven’t been since I was a girl–because the boy who confided in his sister that he was surprised to miss Mom because she’s so annoying wrote to me, without fail, every week, and sometimes the letters made me laugh and sometimes they made me cry and sometimes they filled me with such deep longing and regret I will never find words big enough to capture how that felt, but it didn’t matter what kind of feelings they would bring because the over-riding emotion, always, was simple gratitude for his crabbed handwriting and his words that were evidence that he wasn’t, as I once feared, lost to me.

The utter, sterile emptiness of his room after I cleaned it up and out, and how that stripped down space seemed metaphor for what remains of my mothering, absent now of all the clutter and detritus that once filled it. There are a few, important mementos still on display, and the room remains his, but it is a room I know will now be used only occasionally, and likely never in the same way again. During boot camp, every once in a while I’d go in there and sit on the bed and look around, and although a part of me felt calmed by the lack of chaos that once defined the space, another part of me wished only to see once again the dirty laundry and discarded homework and empty wrappers and long-abandoned childhood toys that once filled it, wanted even to smell the distinct, peculiar funk of teen-age boy I once thought I’d never be able to eradicate.

The relief and release of a worry I’d been carrying for years, so long I hardly felt its weight until I was able to set it down. The picking up of a new one, and realizing that it is in some ways heavier and in others lighter, and that mothering will always be this picking up and setting down and shifting weight from one arm or hip to the other–for worry is always love swaddled in hope and fear, and I could never set that down for good.

The way I felt oddly shy when I finally saw him and could hear his voice again, how he was both the child I know intimately and a stranger whose boundaries were unclear. How he walked and stood so differently, but from behind I still saw the same sloping line of his shoulders, a cadence in the swing of his hips that remains and belongs only to him. How his brief return home was both exquisite and crucifying, the way it brought him back while nailing us to the truth that who he’d been and how he’d lived was no more, and that we’d both have to build our way to a new life and ways of being, not together, as when he was born, but mostly apart.

As I write these words, not without tears, I think again of how I was able to write so many in the first four years of my children’s lives that I actually had enough for a book, which is astounding, really–that while being ground in the mill of new-parenting (not one, but two preemies), I managed not just to string enough words together to make a book but also to sort and arrange and polish them into an award-winning one–and I see, really see, for the first time that my lamentations for years that I just couldn’t make the time to write were probably bullshit, just like all the published writers who write have always said such lamentations are.

I’m not discounting the real barriers that scarce resources create (and I’ve never met a single parent who has resources in abundance) but today, right now, I think maybe that writing about all the big things of the past decade–death and divorce and the destruction of beliefs and dreams and faith–just might have hurt too much, might have cemented into long-term memory moments that felt too painful to keep.

I got to hear my friend Kate, writer of the epigraph to this post, read recently from the book in which her words appear, and she mentioned that she hasn’t been writing and is in “a fallow time.”

“Me, too,” I said to her after the reading. “But it always comes back, doesn’t it? I’ve gone through it enough times to trust that it will.”

I thought I was saying those words for her, but I can see now, on this first Saturday morning of fall, as both the dark and the pain in my head lift, that I was probably saying them more for me. Maybe enough distance is opening between me and all that hurt that I can get the thoughts down without them taking me down, too, and before I’m so far removed from them that I’ve lost the moments of joy and beauty that are always, always entwined with pain.

Maybe.

Adulting. And stuff.

My daughter’s biggest challenges in the last year have come from learning how to adult. I feel her pain.

Although I am firmly into my 6th decade of living, when it comes to adulting I feel I could be the Imposter Syndrome poster child. I look like a fully-functioning adult. I know all kinds of things about a lot of things–you don’t even want to debate me about the Oxford comma–but I am sometimes shocked by how little I know about the basics of maintaining a life. You really can wing it/kinda fake it for a lot of things. For a really long time. Or, at least, I’ve been able to so far.

This is not an adulting desk.

But it bothers me that I don’t really know how a lot of things work and feel I have very few practical life skills. If the zombie apocalypse comes or the grid collapses or the bottom of privileged, western life falls out in some other way, I’m toast. I can function pretty well in a world with big box stores and electricity and YouTube and take-out, but I will definitely not be the fittest in any kind of basic survival contest.

I’m not really worried about doomsday scenarios, but I descend from farmers and fishermen and machinists–all self-sufficient people who knew how to grow and make and do with their hands. It bothers me to have so little skill in taking care of my own needs. I’m tired of feeling mildly (or majorly) incompetent a lot of the time, especially when it comes to feeding myself and keeping house. Also, I really like it when I occasionally do something well in these arenas.

I didn’t grow any of this not-organic food, but I made this grown-up meal all by myself.

So the other day I checked this book out of the library:

At first I thought it was going to be another lifestyle porn kind of book–and it does have gorgeous pictures with rustic tile, simple linens, and lots of things in glass jars–but it’s got a lot of substance to it:  philosophy, practical strategies, and concrete tools. Most pages look like this one:

There are a few things I particularly enjoy about Erica Strauss’s philosophical approach to food and home. The biggest one? “…don’t be afraid to take it slow at first.”

This is one of the few books I’ve read that makes me think I could actually learn how to do food and home, which makes me want to jump all in. I want to do it all–grow vegetables, can, make my own household cleaners, revamp my household routines–and I want to do it all right now! But this is what my kitchen looks like right now:

And the only way it’s going to look better is if I spend a substantial amount of each day for what’s left of the summer working on it. I’ve also got family to love, and some work to do, and….  I appreciate Strauss’s stance that “this is not an all-or-nothing thing” and that the “ultimate goal of a hands-on homekeeper is to be proactive about shaping your own healthy domestic life.” In other words, she’s not an insufferable purist about the whole thing. In fact, she’s pretty damn funny (as you can see in this post from her blog).

So I’m starting with something simple:  making natural household cleaners. I’ve wanted to do this before, but I got stymied by not knowing where to find borax and castile soap in the store. (I kid you not. I still don’t know where to find them, but if I can’t figure it out this time I’m just going to break down and order them from Amazon.)

Baby steps, baby.

Once upon a time I wrote a blog in which our basic premise was that how we do home is how we do life. I still believe that. For three years, life has been an on-hold, up-in-the-air, what-the-actual-fuck, one-transition/calamity-after-another affair. Home has been slap-dash, make-do, get-through-the-day-however-we-can-and-call-it-a-victory sort of thing. Making my own household cleaners might be only the first step on a thousand mile journey, but at least I’m finally moving, and it feels like the right direction. George Eliot wrote that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I generally think that’s a crock of hooey, but when it comes to this I think she’s right.

Now this is a guy with practical life skills.

 

Postcards

I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.

My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.

My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.

Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.

A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.

Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.

My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.

I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.

A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?

When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”

What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”

When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.

It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.

A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?

I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.

On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)

The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.

 

Of holes and forests and trees

“I know you must feel like a small voice in the wilderness, but keep doing what you’re doing, even if it’s just a couple of thoughtful lines on a blog.” –Patti

I haven’t written since late January because…

Have you ever had so much to say your throat feels choked with words and none can find their way out? And the longer you go with no words, the harder it is to utter the first ones again?

When my daughter moved 3,000 miles away to college last fall, she somehow knew exactly why and how it was different for each of us:

“It’s not as hard for me because my whole life is new and there’s no Mom hole in it where you used to be. But your life is the same except you have a Grace hole where I used to be.”

(There are actually two holes now, but I can’t write about that second one just yet.)

As the months passed, the Grace hole gradually closed. It happened slowly. Sometimes, if I was careless or the world was particularly sharp, the wound re-opened. That hurt.

Before I knew it, her first year of college was done. On May 10th, she came home.

At first, it felt a little uncomfortable to let a space open for her again. I’d gotten used to my new routines and ways of being. And truth be told, at first I felt a little resistance, and fear:  That peace I’d made my way to was hard-won; I did not want to have to retrace my steps when she left.

And now she will always be leaving again.

It didn’t take much for me to surrender though, and I discovered that being a mom at this stage is a lot like riding a bike. After a few wobbles, I knew just what to do, and it was glorious to fly down the road again with the sun on my face.

Still, I knew all along she’d only be home for a month, and that the time would end. Of all the things I cannot control, time is the most vexing. The day to take her back to the airport came swiftly, and too soon.

Now there is a Grace hole again. I find its edges in the oddest places–when I turn on the car and it is her music I hear, when I see the apples that only she eats going soft in the bowl, when I put on the coat she wore and smell the echo of her perfume.

It is smaller than the chasm she left in August, and it will close more quickly. I know this. But I suspect the scar it leaves will always be a tender one.

Forest Photo Credit: ALFONSO1979  Flickr via Compfight cc

What kind of German would you be?

In 1983, as a senior in high school, I took a class called 20th Century Europe, which I remember mostly as a blurry litany of battles interrupted by a grisly Christmas-break research project on medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

I do, however, clearly remember the day I learned about how Hitler rose to power through legal means, and how he used legal means to create an authoritarian state. I remember when discussion turned to the German people, and we collectively wondered how they had let the atrocities of the Third Reich happen. I listened to my classmates, one after another, condemn ordinary Germans for not resisting, for turning on their neighbors, for looking away from the columns of smoke rising from the concentration camps. They insisted they would never do such things. They would speak their minds. They would hide Jews. They would not be “good Germans.”

I listened in disbelief. Perhaps it was because I had memories of my great-grandmother who immigrated to this country from that one; although I didn’t know them, some of those ordinary Germans were my family, and I imagined myself in their place. Perhaps it was because I already knew my own fears and weaknesses and strong instinct for self-preservation. I doubted very much that I or most of the others in the room would risk torture and imprisonment and death to resist the Nazis, and I thought their belief that they would and their judgement of Germans who didn’t was just plain wrong.

Which is what I said aloud in class, probably too forcefully. I remember the uncomfortable silence that followed my words and the stunned look on the face of the girl who had last spoken before me. I didn’t know how to criticize the ideas without criticizing the people who voiced them, and I sure didn’t know how to repair the feelings I had hurt without saying I didn’t mean it, which wouldn’t have been true. I felt defensive and embarrassed and regretful long after our teacher moved us on.

I wish I could tell you that I feel differently about myself and my fellow Americans than I did in 1983, but I really don’t. I think that if writing blog posts such as this one might get me jailed, I’d likely stop writing them. If hiding a member of a targeted group would mean risking imprisonment for my family, I probably wouldn’t do that. We all want to be this man, but how many of us really are?

I have thought about that day in class many times since November 8th, wondering exactly what it is we all need to do and how–and when–we should do it.

Despite all the ways in which Trump seems to be following the playbook of other fascist rulers, we can’t know that he’s setting his sights on being an authoritarian despot. I know it’s inconceivable to many Americans that Trump could ever wreak the kind of havoc on the world that Hitler did, and any comparison to Hitler causes them to dismiss the one making the comparison. It’s important to remember, though, that in early 1933, Germans couldn’t know what Hitler would become, either. The signs were there, and many saw them, but I’m guessing people told themselves the same kinds of things I hear many of us saying today:

  • Congress will keep him from doing anything too terrible.
  • We’re never going to lose our rights to free speech and free elections.
  • C’mon, this is the United States of America. We’re still us.

I suppose that’s why so many Germans did nothing until the price of resistance was too high for most to pay.

Unlike us, those Germans didn’t have the advantage of such a recent example of how terrible things in a democracy can get. But we do, and that’s why I’m trying hard to be the kind of German I hope I would have been in early 1933, when Germans could still resist without risking everything.

We need to be strong enough to stand up to those who tell us that our speaking out is the problem. We need to remind ourselves and then tell them that true unity and peace does not come from keeping our mouths shut about what we feel and believe and know (verifiably) to be true.

We need to take back the word “patriot” and remind ourselves and tell them that patriots are not loyal to a person, but to our country. We need to remind ourselves and tell them that dissent and free speech are part of what has made our country strong –it’s never been what has made us weak.

We need to remind ourselves and tell them that name-calling (crybabies, libtards, snowflakes) and logical fallacies are the tactics of abusers who attempt to silence others through intimidation and shame.

I get why it might feel better, right now, to quietly wait and see. As alarmed as I am by the things I’ve already seen, even I can tell myself that it probably won’t ever be as bad as I fear it could be. I fear being dismissed as an alarmist or extremist. But I am reminding myself and telling others repeatedly that if we wait until things are truly alarming and extreme before we act, it may be too late.

Incidents like the one in my high school history class caused me, over time, to silence myself. I wanted to avoid those moments of discomfort and embarrassment, especially with those I care about. If I didn’t feel sure that I could say something in the best way, I often said nothing at all. But the time has come for us to value other things more than comfort, for both ourselves and others.  The time has come to be like the Germans we wish there had been more of in 1933–because I never want to have to know what kind of German I might have been in 1939 or 1942. And I will neither apologize for nor own the discomfort of others when I do, even if I do it clumsily.

This is what democracy looks like.

Just in case you think I am being too alarmist, take a gander here or here.

Photo of August Landmesser via http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/august-landmesser-1936/

Word for the year: Amplify

I know I’m a little late for the word of the year business, but I’ve been using every spare minute to launch the project I alluded to in my last post. It’s got everything to do with my word for this year:

Amplify

My word for last year was “voice”–and let me tell you, I’ve just gotta say that the previous 12 months made me a believer in the power of choosing a word. I’ll admit I was a skeptic. Choosing a word seemed like a twee, precious kinda thing for people who clearly have a sort of privilege most don’t. Maybe it is, but it made a powerful difference in my year, and I’d like to think that it made at least a small difference for some other folks, too.

Because my word was voice, I made the decision to audition for Listen to Your Mother. There, I got way out of my comfort zone, where I found wonderful new friends. I shared a piece that others told me helped them with their own struggles. I was not really pleased with my performance, but I’m pleased that I did it. And then later in the year I took a writing class from one of those new friends, and learned a new way to use my voice.

Because my word was voice, I entered into the political fray in ways I never have. It started with this post, but it didn’t end there. I began talking with others in different ways, about different things. As the year’s political events unfolded, I talked more and more. It was hard! I know some people don’t like what I’ve been saying, and for someone with decades of people-pleasing as her go-to strategy for getting along in the world, well…that doesn’t feel very comfortable. However, just as using my voice on stage brought me new relationships, using my voice in social media has done the same. I’ve found I’m connecting to some in different ways, and some in deeper ways. I may have lost some relationships, but I have more of the right ones. Using my voice more truthfully and more often has given me that.

Because I got myself more involved in political conversation and started to feel more comfortable using my voice, I made the decision to enter a program to learn how to be a leader for equity. And that has changed everything for me. My view of the world has changed. It has been hard. Really hard. Uncomfortable. Painful. I got to participate in some difficult conversations. They are on-going. I am finding myself tested to use my voice in ways I never considered using it. This is all very much a work in progress, and I know I’m in the early stages of it. Although it’s challenging and often doesn’t feel good, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. My life–and the world in which I live it–has become richer than I ever knew it could be. Voice has given me that.

Using my voice has also brought gains in my personal life. I haven’t written much about that in a long time because it was a hard, hard year. Using our voices doesn’t mean that we don’t still get to make choices about where we’ll use them or what we’ll talk about. Cane and I have been dealt some pretty crappy cards in the past 3 years, and they are hands we needed to play out mostly privately. I think the only reason we’re still in the game is that I finally learned how to speak more honestly. I learned how to express hard truths that need to be said. That people-pleasing thing is a relationship killer and all kinds of ass-backwards conditioning. You do it thinking it’s making things better, but it really isn’t. It just send problems underground, where they fester and eventually emerge in destructive ways. We’ve still got hard road to travel. We’re still living separately half the time. But it is finally feeling as if we’ve turned a corner toward some light.

But that was all last year!

I will admit that I didn’t go through the same word-choosing process this year. Because:  The end of 2016 was brutal. I got personally gobsmacked by things I didn’t know in late October, and while I was still reeling from that, November 8th ran over me like a bus. I was feeling slammed on all fronts by giant truths I’d been blind to, and I couldn’t get my bearings. For most of November and December, nothing felt solid under my feet.

In the past few weeks, though, I thought about the word thing off and on. I considered “no.” And then I considered “yes.” I considered “resist” and “resistance.” And then one day the word just came to me, and as soon as it did I knew it was the right one:  Amplify.

2016 was about finding and using my own voice, and  2017 is going to be about turning up the volume. It’s not so much about broadcasting my own voice, though, as it is about lifting up the voices of others. If you’re my Facebook friend, you know that mostly what I do there is share things I think are important for people to see. That’s one way of amplifying.

Another way of amplifying is to create a stage and invite others onto it. As I stumbled around on that shifting ground in the last months of 2016, I spent a lot of time wondering what my response to our unfolding events should be. So many things are so pressing. It’s hard to know how to best use limited time and money and energy. I watched others leaping into immediate action, and I wanted to be like that, too. I did some things, but none of them felt like the best things for me.

The day the Electoral College voted, I drove in terrible weather for more than hour, alone, to my state capital for a protest. I knew no one, and the turnout was small. I stood at the edges of the crowd, wondering what to do. People were chanting, but I’ve never been a good chanter. (It always reminds me of the Hitler rallies they showed us when I was in school.) It was really damn cold, and, honestly, it felt a bit pointless to me. My state’s electors weren’t going to be casting votes for Trump, and it occurred to me that there were probably much better ways for me to spend my energy that day. After 15 minutes, I got back in my car and drove home, thinking about what I could do.

During the drive, I felt a calm settle over me. I think I needed that day to finally accept that the unacceptable was going to happen. Our president is going to be a lying, manipulative, impulsive, self-serving, ignorant jackass who threatens things I once believed could never be destroyed, and he is supported by huge numbers of people who don’t believe and/or care about factual truth. His presidency might bring the kinds of things I once thought would exist for us only in dystopian novels. It will definitely hurt people I care about. Somehow, paradoxically, these truths allowed me to stop feeling frantic about doing something rightnowrightnowrightnow and accept that we all need to adjust ourselves for a long, most-likely painful haul. I realized that what we are facing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I started thinking about what I can maintain over the long distance of four or more years. I realized that what we all need to do is find those things that are best suited to the talents and skills and resources we have and trust that others will do the things we’re not able to do. That’s been hard for me, as mine don’t feel like the ones that might be most essential right now. I’ll be honest:  I wish I had some different ones. But we’ve all got to work with what we’ve got.

What I am is an educator, a librarian, a writer, and a reader. I’ve got time in the evenings, but not much during the work day. I thought long and hard about what it is that created change in me over the past year, what pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place where I can more clearly see how injustice and oppression works in my country. I realized that it was story and information and discussion–things that an educator/librarian/writer/reader is pretty much wonderfully equipped to support.

And so that’s what I’m planning to do in the coming 12 months. With my daughter, I’m starting a new project, The Year of Reading Dangerously, which you can find in a different site, right here. That’s a place where weI hope to amplify the voices of the writers and readers. It won’t be as much about my voice as about the voices of everyone in the community. While it is not the only work I’ll be doing to resist the degradation of our democracy, it’s work that I know I can do. It alone can’t save the world, but it’s a pebble I can drop into the vast pond we all share, with faith that the ripples will touch others in ways I’ll likely never know about.

I really hope you’ll join me there. I’ll still be writing here, toggling back and forth between both places. I can’t not write, and I value the community here more than I can say. At the beginning of 2016, I dared the year to give me whatever it wanted, thinking it couldn’t be much worse than 2015. Honestly, it was nearly as bad. The lifting up I’ve gotten from those of you who join me here made all the difference in the world to me. Thank you for reading, writing, and slogging through the challenge of being human with me.

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer Flickr via Compfight cc